In the face of enormous protests from the tank barge industry, the Coast Guard is withdrawing 1979 proposals that were designed to prevent offshore oil spills. One proposal would have required new oil-carrying tank barges to have a double hull to guard against the hulls splitting open during an accident and spilling oil. The second would have required that certain single-hull tank barges be eliminated over time. Industry complained that both regs would have placed an undue financial burden on the tank barge industry.

The Coast Guard turned to the National Academy of Sciences, which concluded that double hulls would prevent oil spills in minor accidents or groundings, accounting for about 690,000 gallons of oil spilled annually. But the NAS study concluded that double hulls would have little impact in high-speed collisions, rammings or other catastrophic accidents, which account for oil spills of 910,000 gallons each year. The thicker hulls would also have no effect on the 360,000 gallons spilled annually during transfer operations.

In withdrawing the proposals, the Coast Guard noted that its inspectors are paying more attention to problems--like rust--that are associated with hull deterioration, and are granting fewer inspection delays. It said these changes should help identify the higher-risk barges. But the Coast Guard also said it is unclear how proposed budget cuts will affect its inspection program.